Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Run in the middle of the road, it will be safer!"

This past Sunday morning I ran a half-marathon.  Yes, 13.1 miles.  Sounds like a lot of miles?  It is.

Anyone who reads this blog knows I'm more of a biker than a runner.  So why did I do it?  I dunno.  Cross-training, I guess.

To dodge Ghana's tropical, near-equatorial heat and ocean-fed humidity, the race started at 6:30 a.m.  I had to de-bed at 4:45 to get myself ready and to the starting line.  4:45, people!  No small feat for a night-owl.

The starting-line experience was awesome.  Surrounded by shipping containers stacked five-high at the port in Tema, Accra's sister city, a hundred dazed runners milled about sporting oh-so-fashionable race numbers pinned to the fronts of their shirts.  I made a Ghana milestone for myself, before the race even started, by peeing in a nearby street-side ditch (somewhat screened by the back of a bus stop).

Hey, I had to go.  And, if you're a man in Ghana, you gotta pee in a street-side ditch at least once.  It's tradition.

The start of the course followed the coast.  Waves crashed pleasantly just to my left.  Ocean breezes kept things cool.  By the 3 mile mark, I was thinking about quitting.  Why not just sit on the beach all day?  But then I forgot about quitting and just ran.

Running the Accra International Marathon is a unique experience.  "It can be kind of like orienteering," a friend said, giving me pre-start advice from his adventures the year before.  And he wasn't joking.  He had a GPS strapped to his wrist.

In this marathon/half-marathon run, there are no regular race markers.  The road is not closed off to vehicle traffic.  Water stations can be hit-or-miss.  There are no ambulances standing by.

The majority of the course is done on potholed roads, where runners compete with taxis, diplomat-plate SUVs, exhaust-spewing tro-tros (local mini-buses), and the occasional bicycle for road-space; on rutted dirt shoulders, where runners compete with trucks broken down at the side of the road, tro-tros pulling over to pick up passengers, and again the occasional bicycle for shoulder-space; and on busy market sidewalks, where runners compete with pedestrians, sidewalk kiosk sellers, men carrying jugs of water on their heads, and yes the occasional bicycle, for sidewalk-space.

This road-and-shoulder sharing didn't bother me as much as it might have, however.  I've done plenty of walking and biking in and around Accra traffic, and I've learned to trust Accra drivers enough to know they won't hit me.  They're better drivers than I am - at least in the sense that they can reliably come within six inches of my person and not bash me in the kneecaps with a fender or catch my elbow with their side mirror.  This is a skill I wouldn't trust drivers in the US, say, to possess.

But still, the best only-in-Accra moment of the race came at me completely unexpected.

I was on the most challenging part of the run.  It was the dropping-tired 9 to 11 mile-mark section, and the racecourse was running straight through the bustling town of Teshie, right down the main market street.  I was struggling down the left-hand side of the gritty thoroughfare, constantly in danger of barging into a phone-card seller if I ran on the sidewalk or of being flattened by a pulling-over tro-tro if I ran on the street's margin.

Finally, a policeman directing traffic at an intersection took pity on me.  "Run in the middle of the road," he hollered to me, holding up traffic with one hand to let me pass.  "It will be safer!"

The thing is: he was right.  Traffic was backed up enough to be moving slowly, the road was very well-paved in the middle, and my two-leggedness definitely made me visible among all the four-wheeled madness.

So I ran the last miles of the race following the center stripe, with traffic steaming past in both directions on either side of me.  Taxi-drivers yelled encouragement as they drifted by, keeping their side mirrors at least six inches (usually) away from my hips and elbows.

Equatorial cross-training at its best.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

'African' Art, with a Twist

The exhibit "Pret-a-partager: A transcultural exchange in art, fashion and sports" has been making its way around the continent, and I was lucky to catch it here in Ghana last week.

Sponsored locally by the Goethe Institut, the exhibit contained artifacts and artworks from an artist's conference organized by the German international cultural exchange organization IFA in Dakkar, Senegal in 2008.

Walking through the exhibit rooms, it was quickly apparent that this group of artists had played hard with the sort of mediums - installation, street/performance art, found objects - and themes - race, cross-cultural identity, cityscapes, the juxtaposition of art with the everyday - that I often contemplate.

A series of photos by Zohra Opoku, for instance, combines fashion design with photography with the urgency of momentary performance in a fleetingly-captured cityscape.  Her photographs of white-clad dancers performing capoeira-inspired moves at sites around Dakkar are just the sort of thing I'd love to pull off in Accra.

Another piece I loved was what I laughingly called the "butt-calabash" - a part of a large gourd (in local culture named a calabash, traditionally used to carry liquids) sewn onto the seat of a pair of jeans.

A perfectly irreverent twist on fashion, tradition, and 'African' culture.  I wish I could have been the white guy wearing these jeans around Dakkar for a day.

My favorite piece was probably a video documenting a street performance inspired by the then-upcoming Muslim celebration of Eid.  Taking advantage of the city's street-side sheep markets and playing off the imminent household sheep-slaughter that is a prominent Eid ritual in Dakkar, artist Athi-Patra Ruga took over a small piece of sidewalk, enclosed himself within a table with only his head peeking out, then let the sheep eat fruit placed on the table around his head.  Brilliant nuttiness.

The Nubuke Foundation in Accra's East Legon suburb hosted Pret-a-partager.  Though the exhibit ended on September 17, I'm sure I'll be dropping in again soon to sample more of their creative offerings.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Woman, Riding Bike

Last week there was an intriguing workshop at the Goethe Institut -  a German language and cultural center - in Accra.  Called Woman on Bike, it focused on the intersection of art, gender, fashion, and (of course) bicycles.

Since all these subjects intrigue me, I was intent on attending, but could only manage to get there one day out of the five.  Dropping by on Wednesday afternoon, I found a small group intently discussing both the possibilities for bicycle-themed art/graphics/performances and for getting more people - especially women - to ride bikes.

Bicycles are present on the streets of Accra but not in large numbers, and I can count on one hand the times I've seen a woman pedaling anything with two wheels.  Until last week, that is.  I joined the Woman on Bike group for their daily ride and, with five females saddling up, more than doubled my count.

We tooled slowly around the city, starting on the quiet suburb-like lanes of Labone before venturing into the vehicular madness around the Burma Camp Road and Trade Fair.  I've heard plenty of excuses for why folks don't like to ride bike here, the traffic and the road-side open ditches always high among them.  But riding in a group was profoundly comforting: our number made us collectively a larger vehicle than one biker alone, and we knew someone was there to help us if we tripped into that ditch.

Were drivers always kind?  No.  We had large trucks rumbling by way-too-close and tro-tro drivers pulling over sharply in front of us to pick up their next passenger.  But, even as a group with a high number of fairly novice riders, we tackled one of the most difficult stretches of road to bike in Accra - the beach road between Labadi and La Palm hotels - and came through unscathed.

The ride reminded me how good it feels to get out on the bike, and how fun it is to ride with others.  I hope last week's workshop helps more of Accra's citizens find, and never forget, the joy of biking.

Note: This workshop ran in conjunction with the Pret-a-partager exhibit at the Nubuke Foundation in East Legon.  A collection of work from a Dakkar-based artists meeting in 2008, the exhibit has been showing around the continent and is in Accra till Sept. 17.

Starting out brings smiles.
Our biking lineup battles Accra's taxis for supremacy on the road.
The joy of biking is irrepressible, even on this potholed and cars-go-too-fast section
of Accra's beach road.
Fearless leader and workshop facilitator Zohra Opoku
speeds toward the ride's finish.
Trying out my new point-and-shoot's automatic photo-panorama function
as we take a rest at the Du Bois Center.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Towed by Taxi

Taxis are nearly everywhere in Accra, and throughout Ghana as well.  Country or city, paved road or dirt lane, there's bound to be a taxi passing soon.

If you got no car in Ghana and need to get somewhere fast, this is great.  Flag down one of the orange-hipped wonders, barter your price, off you go.

On a recent trip to the US I told a friend that, if I walked out my front door and didn't find a taxi within two minutes, I got frustrated.  They were surprised at this.  I was surprised that they were surprised.  Then I remembered, "Right, the US don't got taxis like Ghana's got taxis."

One of Ghana's iconic orange-paneled taxis passing Accra's iconic
Independence Arch.

If you do have your own car in Ghana and want to get somewhere fast, however, the omnipresence of taxis is not so great.  And that's because taxi drivers here know how to behave as if they were the only thing on the road.

These guys (I've never seen a woman driving a taxi) are practically a force of nature, a law unto themselves.  If they push their way into an intersection in front of you (even though you have the right-of-way), or drift pointedly into your lane, or otherwise cut you off - let them.  They're more determined than you.  And, with their chariot sure to be already scraped and dented from the bump-and-grind of Accra traffic, they've got less to lose.

Taxis in Ghana are quite versatile.  They can take you across town to the mall.  They can get a bed or a dresser or a sofa or a mattress home from the store for you.  They can take you and your 200 yams to market.

They can even be tow trucks.

On a recent weekend trip to Ghana's Volta Region, my car broke down.  Now, if I was stuck on the side of the road in the US, my procedure would be something like: call a tow truck, get car to mechanic, wait while mechanic tries to fix.

Here, I just flagged down a taxi.

The driver took me to the nearest mechanic.  He took the mechanic and me back to the car.  Then, when the mechanic said we should get the car to his nearby shop, the taxi driver broke out a dirty length of rope.  He roped my car to his taxi.  And off we went to the mechanic's place - no tow truck needed.

I spent some hours, then, on a wooden bench in this mechanic's 'shop' - little more than a rickety corrugated-roof pavilion over a patch of dirt, with a cluttered workbench and a few old cars sitting under a nearby tree.

It was oddly pleasant, though, probably more so than sitting in some enclosed and greasy-smelling anteroom in a car garage in the US.  The wind ruffled my hair.  Traffic breezed past.  The mechanic's friends dropped by to say hello.

I never did get to the Volta Region that weekend, and regrettably spent more time with the mechanic than I spent having fun.

But at least I can say I've had my car towed by a taxi.